Flexing their soon-to-expire legislative muscle, House Democrats on Thursday won a symbolic but hollow victory to end Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans starting Jan. 1, while preserving cuts for all lower-income taxpayers.
The House voted 234-188 to back the Democratic leaders' stance, but rank-and-file Republicans and Democrats alike acknowledged the real action was happening in the Senate, where a deal was taking shape to extend temporarily all of the income tax cuts passed in 2001 and 2003.
House Republicans condemned the vote as a partisan exercise in futility.
"I'm trying to catch my breath so I don't refer to this maneuver going on today as chicken crap, all right?" House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, the Ohio Republican in line to be the next speaker of the House in January, told reporters before the vote. "To roll this vote out today, it really is just — it's what you think I was going to say, anyway."
After months of stalemate, and after refusing to act before the midterm elections, House Democratic leaders pressed ahead Thursday even as a working group formed by congressional leaders and President Obama appeared to be whittling down the options on the path to an agreement that would extend all of the tax cuts for a couple of years — effectively punting the key question to a future Congress.
Congressional Republicans have been united in calling for an extension of all of the Bush-era tax cuts, while Democrats are divided. Some want to see them extended, while others, including the party's leaders, say the country can afford only to extend tax cuts for individuals who make less than $200,000 or married couples earning less than $250,000.
Extending all the tax cuts would cut government revenue by $2.2 trillion over the next 10 years, while extending all but the top tax increases would total $1.5 trillion.
The divisions showed through in Thursday's vote. Some 20 Democrats joined 168 Republicans in voting against Democratic leaders' proposal, while three Republicans joined the Democratic majority in support of the measure.
Much of Thursday's debate devolved into semantics. Republicans were furious that Democrats gamed the rules to prohibit a vote on extending all the tax cuts, and Democrats charged Republicans with being hypocritical by saying they support tax cuts, yet voting against the only tax-cut option they were offered.
"The time has come. This is the moment to stand up and be counted on middle-income tax cuts," said Rep. Sander M. Levin, Michigan Democrat, who is Ways and Means Committee chairman.
Rep. Paul Tonko, a Democrat, said his central New York district has 6,800 people making more than $250,000 a year, and 6,400 on unemployment will lose their benefits by the end of December. He said he would side with those in the lower tier.
But even some rank-and-file Democrats said the vote was a charade, since the real decision about a final agreement will be hashed out in the Senate, where the rules give the minority Republicans far more power to shape the final bill.
"This bill will pass over to the Senate; it'll come back with the big tax cuts for the rich," said Rep. Jim McDermott, Washington Democrat, who vowed to vote against that eventual compromise.
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